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Amazon’s Liesbeek development: Preserving ‘the Place of the Stars’ from corporate plunder

This week the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoi Traditional Indigenous Council and Observatory Civic Association went to court to prevent the destruction of the intangible heritage of the Liesbeek Riverine Valley and the environmental harms inherent in this development. They have 56,000 supporters on their petition website, more than 60 organisations backing Heritage Grading for the Two Rivers Urban Park, and support from multiple professionals who argue the development is contrary to all planning, environmental and heritage considerations.

'Igamirodi !khaes' means the place of the stars. The indigenous people of the Cape recognised the land of the two rivers as a sacred space to gather under the stars and the moon. (Illustration by Tehatsistahawi Kennedy/

The council and civic association worked hard for a fair and impartial administrative process, but failed. The objections, supported by well-reasoned evidence, have been discarded in the rush to allow Amazon to set up headquarters on the Liesbeek – in a sacred floodplain that should be a heritage precinct. The notice is for an urgent interdict to halt construction, and alongside the interdict is a notice for a high court review of the decisions to approve the development taken by the City of Cape Town and the provincial department of environmental affairs and development planning.

This article is an edited version of a letter I wrote in support of the affidavit.

Igamirodi !khaes means the place of the stars. The indigenous people of the Cape recognised the land of the two rivers as a sacred space to gather under the stars and the moon. As Tauriq Jenkins, high commissioner of the council, shares in his affidavit: “Igamirodi !khaes has an uninterrupted view of a particular aspect of Table Mountain (Devil’s Peak), and importantly, it is the only place where, from the confluence of the river, during the equinox (when days and nights are equal in length), you can see the sun sitting right on top of the Lion’s Head.”

This knowledge of the cosmos, reflected in the name and purpose of Igamirodi !khaes, was recognised by scientists who chose this specific site as the location for the South African Astronomical Observatory.

The Goringhaicona Khoi Khoi Traditional Indigenous Council applied for this site to be classified as a National Heritage Resource and in 2020 President Cyril Ramaphosa signed off on the Resistance and Liberation Heritage Route, a national memory project which includes Khoi resistance within the area.

Cape indigenous heritage artist Ernestine Deane reminds us that this “precious ecosystem of the wetlands” is also “the land-site of the battle of Salt River, the first recorded and successful black revolt against colonialism, where the Khoekhoe victory held Portuguese colonialism at bay for 150 years (from 1510). 350 years later, the British held Zulu King Cetshwayo captive at the adjacent Oude Moulen prison.”

This is the land chosen by corporate developers aiming to make their billions.

Why would the province and the City of Cape Town enable these corporate developers to undermine the dignity of indigenous people and their land? The 2015 secretive sale of public land, behind closed doors, to private developers for R12-million, was well below market value. The deal with Amazon is R4-billion. Who is benefiting from this deal? In the Cape Argus, corporate developer Jody Aufrichtig makes the cynical claim that their development will “address the injustices of apartheid spatial planning”.

Organic farmer and feminist Dr Yvette Abrahams (who holds a PhD in Indigenous Knowledge Systems), points out: “We are in the middle of a recession and there is plenty of vacant office space in Cape Town. What we need is housing for the poor, urban agriculture and city green lungs. The DA should disclose which developers have contributed to party coffers… they need to open their books to public inspection. I totally oppose the River Club development.”

Amazon can use other available land and office space in Cape Town and still create the jobs it promises (hopefully not as precarious as many of the jobs it creates).

The government cannot collude with development corporations who deploy divide-and-rule tactics to manipulate real needs, including desperate levels of unemployment and homelessness it is elected to address. Members of more than 60 Khoi groups, civics and NGOs who oppose the development (on a sensitive environmental precinct including a threatened wetland and biodiversity hotspot) have been threatened, defamed and excluded as “outcasts” and “drifters”. Deirdre Prins-Solani, consultant to Unesco’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, alerts us to the “reverberations of the structural brutalities of colonisation and apartheid into present-day City of Cape Town’s planning and thought… and the way the fissures and fractures between indigenous peoples continue to be exploited to divide and rule”.

The City undermined public processes in approving the rezoning and development of the site and sacrificed procedural justice. In allowing the conversion of public land, including the river, in the interests of a transnational corporation and a small group of financiers and property developers, the City has ignored the deep connections between the land, the rivers and the history of indigenous people contained in more than 56,000 objections. It has also ignored the warnings of scientists, including its own, contained in heritage impact and environmental impact assessments.

Amid the global climate crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the implications for the land and for people’s lives are enormous. The designated area encompasses the Black and Liesbeek rivers and the land lies in a floodplain. It will require massive engineering work to elevate a dense development out of the floodline. It will place 18 buildings on a 14ha site, ranging from 20m to 44m high, and a total floor space of 150,000m2.

This development would “radically alter the riverine valley and require infill of the course of the Liesbeek River”.

In its argument in court against Ndifuna Ukwazi’s attempt to secure public land at one of the City’s many golf courses, for low-cost public housing, the City argued that it could not be done because the area was in a floodplain. The City cannot continue to subsidise millionaires and billionaires. It has done it in this case and in the 24 golf courses and driving ranges and 26 bowling greens that it leases for about R1,000 a year. It is time for the City to put its money where its mouth is and prioritise the lives of people, not the obscene profits of billionaires.

The first founding value of South Africa’s Constitution recognises inherent dignity as our birthright. Dignity and equality are non-negotiable, substantive rights that underpin every socioeconomic, civil, political and cultural right, which are indivisible and interdependent. All spheres of government are obliged to use public resources to transform South Africa’s deeply entrenched colonial-apartheid spatial geography that traps generations in poverty and inequality. The government has to ensure its decision-making processes are transparent and that it enables meaningful public participation (designed to prevent government corruption by powerful corporations and their states, as happened in the Arms Deal).

Ernestine Deane asserts: “The City of Cape Town should be working alongside us to protect not only corporate development on this land [which] brings further injury to our unwitnessed, unacknowledged trauma. Let us commemorate the site with more than just a token plaque, but protect and celebrate it as a part of our living heritage.”

International human rights principles and commitments oblige the government to protect and uphold the rights of people in corporate-led developments. The International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention states: “Governments shall ensure that appropriate studies are carried out, in cooperation with the peoples concerned, to assess the social, spiritual, cultural and environmental impact on them of planned development activities; and that governments shall take measures… to protect and preserve the environment of the territories they inhabit.”

The current draft of the Transnational Corporate Accountability and Human Rights Treaty asserts: “State parties must ensure that they integrate a gender perspective, in consultation with potentially impacted women and women’s organisations; conduct meaningful consultations with individuals or communities whose human rights can potentially be affected by business activities, and with other relevant stakeholders, while giving special attention to those facing heightened risks of business-related human rights abuses… such as women and indigenous peoples, and that consultations with indigenous peoples are undertaken in accordance with the internationally agreed standards of free, prior and informed consent.”

South Africa’s democracy is obliged to undo the destruction of the rights of South Africans by apartheid, declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations. Those silenced and made invisible by the architects and beneficiaries of this crime are claiming constitutional rights and speaking out against unsustainable, violent processes of patriarchal development.

In 2020, Fikile Ntshangase was assassinated in the struggle against the transnational coal mine PetminUSA, at Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal, and Nonhle Mbuthuma, from Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape, is one of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC) leaders who fears for her life after their chairperson was assassinated in the struggle against Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources, an Australian mining company. Despite assassinations and death threats, the ACC won a groundbreaking court case in Xolobeni for themselves and other communities, “demonstrating that Free, Prior and Informed Consent is integral to ensuring equity, fairness and development for all; fulfilling environmental rights; meeting Indigenous and community rights”.

The judge concurred with the community that projects similar to the Xolobeni mine disproportionately affect local and indigenous communities and have a recorded history of harming multiple aspects of their lives. Mbuthuma says: “We’ve set a precedent for all other communities facing this situation… We need to speak up and say, government, put our lives first.”

In representing the interests of all South Africa’s people, all spheres of government need to move beyond colluding with or being corrupted by neoliberal or colonial-apartheid paradigms and priorities. It is time to see what my late father, Ronnie Govender, called the “cunning on which empires are built”, that endlessly pits us against each other as we destroy our humanity and the earth that holds us.

In Rethinking Africa: Indigenous Women Re-interpret Southern Africa’s Pasts (edited by Bernadette Muthien and June Bam) Sarah Malotane Henkeman writes: “We cannot recreate the world of our ancestors, but we can learn from a worldview in which our lives are not atomised, but one in which we are interdependent and where being humane and respectful of the earth, benefits us all”.

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